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Clowning around: ISL fuses education and circus arts

Listen to Sharon interview Molly Ryhiner below or on WWNO.

There’s a whole bunch of parents in New Orleans who don’t have to worry that their kids are going to get angry and run away to join the circus. That’s because, each day, their offspring get up and go to classes at the International School of Louisiana. It's where a pint-sized tribe of wannabe clowns and tumblers, stilt walkers and jugglers learn their circus arts after they have finished their day in school.

Their teacher is Swiss-born Meret Ryhiner, who not only speaks English, but also both of ISL’s immersion languages – French and Spanish – as well as her own native tongue, Swiss German.

“I was brought up in a tradition where circus was a very high aspect of the culture,” she says, comparing going to the circus in Switzerland, as an upscale activity, to attending the opera. “We always put on our best clothes. So I was used to having a very high standard and high quality for circus arts.”

While Meret appreciated everything about circus life, she never planned on actually being part of it. But that’s where she ended up anyway. And all because of a dance scholarship that brought her to the United States in the late '70s. There, in New York, when she was in her early 20s, she discovered a circus school run by Russian émigrés. Fascinated, she became a student, earning a professional degree in high wire and balancing trapeze acts, and then spent the next 10 years performing all across America.

It was around that same time that the circus had a renaissance throughout Europe. “And then, a whole new way of looking at circus came to the United States,” she recalls. “A movement that became known as the New American Circus.”

Out of that, Meret explains, came the now-world-famous Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil, along with a major circus school in Montreal. As the years went by, a number of high-level circus arts programs were created all across the United States. And in 2000, yet another circus arts program, the American Youth Circus Organization, was formed.

While ISL is a member of that organization, and their students take part in the festivals and activities that happen across the country, Meret and the ISL faculty say there really is no expectation that any of their students will actually join a circus.

So why do all this?

Meret says it’s all about learning life skills.

“To do anything, you have to know your mood,” she says. “You have to know how you feel. You have to be able to assess that and then ask yourself, 'Well, how do I deal with that?' So mood-mastery is a big one. Working with your peers is another big one. You might not be able to be productive with your best friend because you laugh too much -- you talk too much.

“We’re big on gratitude, for being thankful for the things we have. But it’s trust that is at the bottom of everything. We have to trust each other in the group.”

For the seventh year in a row, the ISL’s amazing troupe of acrobats, stilt walkers and jugglers will demonstrate those life lessons as they strut their stuff in the Kid’s Tent at the Jazz Fest. Their appearance is not only fun for the kids; it’s also a treat for many a grown up, most of whom, no doubt, wish they could have learned their life lessons on stilts when they were in school.

The circus at Jazz Fest

What:   The International School of Louisiana circus arts students

Where: The Kid’s Tent at the Jazz Fest

When:  Thursday, May 1, at 5:15

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]